New CRTC chair is no pushover

by Sheldon Gordon

The average Canadian family spends more than $2,000 on communication services (phones, Internet, TV) each year – it’s the sixth biggest expense in most household budgets. That alone gives consumers a big stake in who heads the country’s broadcast and telecom regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

Last June, McGill-trained lawyer and veteran cultural bureaucrat Jean-Pierre Blais, BCL’84, LLB’84, was named as the CRTC’s 10th chair. Blais’s first moves were designed to “lay down a marker” as a consumer-friendly regulator. He immediately created a new position — chief consumer officer – at the commission’s headquarters in Gatineau, Quebec. The post answers what he saw as a need for increased integration of consumer issues in all aspects of the CRTC’s work.

The commission then made national headlines with its surprise decision last October to block BCE Inc.’s planned $3.4-billion acquisition of Astral Media Inc. BCE CEO George Cope made no secret of his anger over the decision, calling it “absurd.” For his part, Blais said that the deal would have given BCE too much control over Canadian broadcasting, imperiling any hope for “robust” competition among different players in the sector.

“We’re not in the business of favoring one group over another,” says Blais. “But applicants have been put on notice that they have to do their homework and meet the burden of proof that their proposal serves the ‘public interest’ and puts Canadians at the centre.” BCE and Astral are now restructuring their deal, still hoping to earn approval.

Blais is currently working on establishing a mandatory code of conduct for wireless providers. “Once the code is in place,” he says, “service providers will have to clarify the contractual terms they are offering their customers, who will then be in a better position to make informed choices.” Following an initial online consultation, the CRTC posted a draft version of the code in late January.

Blais and the CRTC have even scolded Oprah Winfrey – well, not Oprah directly, but Corus Entertainment, which owns the Canadian rights to the Oprah Winfrey Channel. Corus was reprimanded for falling short in fulfilling its broadcasting license obligations by not airing enough educational programming on the channel.

“The issues surrounding OWN have been held up as an example of how the CRTC has become less of a rubber-stamping agency under new chair Jean-Pierre Blais,” noted Marc Weisblott, a news editor who covers media.

In past years, Blais concedes, the CRTC “appeared very distant, not welcoming to consumers who wanted to make their views known. We want to rebuild the confidence of Canadians in the institution.” One way to do that, he says, is to make the CRTC’s hearings more accessible by holding evening sessions, when more working people can attend.

The grey-haired, but youthful-looking regulator has been a fan of television since he spent his childhood watching cop shows, movies and documentaries in his Pointe-Claire home. Today, he watches about 24 hours a week of TV, close to the national average of 28.6 hours. “I multi-task while I watch, but I like news, edgy crime dramas and [Radio-Canada’s] Tout le monde en parle,” he says, drawing on his bicultural identity to watch shows in both official languages.

While the 49-year-old Blais and his generational peers might still watch a fair bit of TV, many younger adults bypass their television sets in favour of downloading programs online. The implications for Canadian content are uncertain. Blais says it’s too soon to say whether conventional TV watching is on its last legs.

“We don’t know whether that will be [young people’s] future pattern of consumption, once they’re married with kids.” He notes that the advent of TV was forecast to be the death of radio, but that didn’t happen. “I see people wanting to buy [broadcasting] assets and pay a lot for them. That doesn’t suggest to me that the business model for commercial television is broken.”

The future regulator got his legal training at McGill. He recalls attending one of his first-year law classes as a callow 19-year old, barely out of CEGEP, looking to his left at a student with a PhD, and to his right at another with two university degrees, and feeling slightly intimidated. But the Faculty of Law, he says, proved to be a formative experience for him.

From 1985 to 1991, Blais practiced intellectual property, entertainment and administrative law at the Montreal law firm Martineau Walker (today Fasken Martineau). Law firms, he says, are stocked with “finders, minders and grinders. I was a grinder.” In his early thirties, looking for an international experience, he left to do an LL.M. at the University of Melbourne. When he returned to Montreal, the Bar wasn’t hiring.

So he reluctantly moved to Ottawa in 1994 to join the CRTC’s legal team, which was hiring following the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling that the commission had sole authority to regulate telecommunications. Blais rose to general counsel, broadcasting, and discovered “that the CRTC, and the public sector in general, practice better law than the private sector, with its emphasis on billable hours.”

As the CRTC’s executive director of broadcasting from 1999 to 2002, he oversaw development of a licensing framework for new digital pay-TV and specialty services. He also led reviews of major acquisitions, including BCE’s (of CTV) and Quebecor Media Inc.’s (of TVA). Blais then moved to the Department of Canadian Heritage as assistant deputy minister, international and intergovernmental affairs—“the best government job I’ve had.”

In that post, he helped shape UNESCO’s Cultural Diversity Convention, which supports “countries making special rules for the promotion of their cultural industries.” He also enlisted multinational adherence to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s anti-doping code. As the federal rep on the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games bid consortium, he helped lobby the IOC in Prague in July 2003, and celebrated its selection of Vancouver.

After a lateral move within the department to assistant deputy minister, cultural affairs, Blais created the Task Force on New Technologies to examine the effect of the Internet and digital technologies on federal cultural policies. He also co-chaired a government-broadcaster committee which eased the way for digital television.

Steeped in Ottawa’s laws and policies on the broadcast and telecom industries, Blais is well equipped for his five-term as chair of the CRTC. He’s hit the ground running.

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